Not long after she sat down in a lawn chair, Aspen Handley, 16, felt the bite on the back of her thigh.
Handley was at a friend's house Aug. 8 in El Reno when she was bitten by a spider. The discomfort wasn't too bad at first, but in the hours to come, it was almost unbearable, said her mother, Dana Klingenburg.
Klingenburg, a nurse at OU Medical Center, called the Oklahoma Poison Control Center and described her daughter's symptoms — stomach pain and cramps, followed by pain in the arms and legs and swelling in her throat.
The expert on the line said it was a black widow bite.
“She (Handley) said it was one of the worst experiences she has ever had,” her mother said.
The number of people bitten by black widows who have called the Oklahoma Poison Control Center in Oklahoma City is up this year, Director Scott Schaeffer said.
And last summer, Schaeffer thought the number of calls was high.
As of Thursday, the center had reports of 54 people being bitten, Schaeffer said. For the same time period in 2011, there were 37.
Forty-two black widow spider bites were reported for all of 2010, and 64 bites were reported in 2011.
Calls about the black widow menace have increased steadily in the past two years because drought, mild winters and heat waves are good for all spiders, experts said.
The heat wave helped incubate egg sacs, with up to 900 babies in each, said Edmond exterminator Mark Lasater, known as The Bug Guy.
Lasater, 48, has lived in Oklahoma 43 years. He said this is the worst black widow infestation he has seen.
“What we need is a good cold winter to thin them out. We didn't have much of a winter,” Lasater said. “But I've never seen anything like this — never can I remember so many. I am finding them at every house I go to.”
“They were bad last year, but they are worse this year,” Lasater said.
Rick Grantham, an entomologist at Oklahoma State University, said the lack of a cold winter and a warm, wet spring have contributed to black widow invasion.
“There has certainly been more than enough insect food around this year to support a higher population,” Grantham said.
Black widows are sluggish and usually not aggressive.
“They are not extremely fast. They are web spiders, so they are not exactly built for speed,” Grantham said.
Black widows don't walk well, but they can move more quickly in their own web. People should remember to keep their hands out of places they can't see, he said.
“Underneath an eave or inside shrubbery, you will find black widow webs,” Grantham said.
Micah Anderson, who coordinates an irrigated crop program for small farmers for the state Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, said he spots black widows in numbers hiding under watermelons and under plastic used for the irrigation systems in fields.
One day along the North Canadian River near Prague, he found himself surrounded while picking up watermelons.
“I've never seen so many,” Anderson said. “I have to roll the watermelons over and look before I pick them up.”
Around the house
Black widows don't often venture indoors, but it can happen.
More of the spiders are being spotted around homes in central Oklahoma this summer, said Ray Ridlen, Oklahoma State University extension agent.
In times of drought, the hearty black widows come closer to buildings and come indoors looking for bugs to prey on. Crickets are one of their staples, Ridlen said.
Black widows are known for the oily black body with the orange hourglass shaped spot. But young and maturing black widows have various molts that change their appearances, he said. Some have a mottled black and white pattern. Sometimes the orange spot is in a different place.
Schaeffer said the black widow is highly venomous, and the antivenin also can cause severe allergic reactions. People should go to the emergency room if they have trouble breathing.
“The pain becomes incredible,” Schaeffer said. “The venom is so powerful it can cause a lot of pain.”
Shaeffer said he expects his staff will continue fielding calls this year, and he will watch where he puts his own hands.
“I am certainly more aware of them now,” Schaeffer said.